MSU plant biologist receives NSF grant to study natural defense in plants

  • Aug 7, 2018
  • Plant science, NSF, Faculty, Research
  • Homepage News, Faculty & Staff, Research, College of Natural Science, Plant Biology
Image of wild grape leaves in petri dishes
Mite domatia are small structures on plant leaves that house beneficial mites as bodyguards. Weber's research leverages the natural variation in domatia across wild grapes to understand how these plant traits function by affecting leaf communities. Photo by Harley Seeley.

Michigan State University plant biologist Marjorie Weber is the lead investigator of a five-year, $1.1 million National Science Foundation Dimensions in Biodiversity grant (2018-2023) to study the evolutionary dynamics of bodyguard reward traits of wild grape plants.  

These traits—called mite domatia—are small structures on plant leaves that house beneficial mites as bodyguards. In return for housing provided by domatia, mites protect the plant by eating microbes and small herbivores on the leaf surface. Weber’s research leverages the natural variation in domatia across wild grapes to understand how these plant traits function by affecting leaf communities.

Bodyguard reward traits are among some of the most well-established forms of natural defense that have evolved in plants against their enemies, such as herbivores that eat its leaves or diseases that invade and destroy plant tissue. In return for their protection, these bodyguards are rewarded by plant-provided food or shelter.

Grape plants are especially interesting in their reward traits, since some species have domatia and are defended by bodyguards, while other species, including many of the most economically important, do not. Mites housed in domatia protect the plant by cleaning the leaf surface of microbial pathogens and small herbivores.

“This research will help us understand the biology of an interesting and ecologically important plant trait, while at the same time allowing us to test fundamental theory about the evolution of cooperation between plants and animals,” said Weber, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology in the MSU College of Natural Science. “We are very excited!”

The team of investigators will integrate phylogenetic comparative modeling, niche and range reconstruction, comparative genomics and large-scale field experiments to understand the historical, ecological and genetic causes and consequences of leaf domatia trait evolution in wild grapes.

Part of the project will involve identifying the genetic and environmental contexts in which grapes successfully use beneficial mite populations to naturally defend themselves against pathogens and herbivores.

The research will result in data on interactions between grapes, their herbivores, beneficial arthropods and the leaf microbiome. These data will be made public and have the potential to inform grape agriculture and breeding.

The project will also result in the hands-on training of young scientists and will include the development of tools aimed at increasing the visibility of research in classrooms. Project Biodiversify, spearheaded by Ash Zemenick, a postdoc in Weber’s lab, provides an easy way for teachers to find diverse scientists to highlight as role models in their classroom lectures.

“I am particularly thrilled that this grant funds the continuation of Project Biodiversify–an online repository of teaching materials that promotes diversity in biology classrooms,” Weber explained. “Scientists can look many ways and come from many different walks of life, but that isn’t always evident from the examples used in textbooks and standard classrooms. We hope that Project Biodiversify helps change that!” 

Danny Schnell, professor and plant biology department chair, noted that NSF’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program is one of the most prestigious and competitive at the National Science Foundation and that receiving one of these awards is a true honor, particularly for a faculty member at the early stages of their career.

“The department is delighted that the NSF has recognized the significance and impact of Marjorie’s work,” Schnell said. “Her project to understand how plants evolve mutually beneficial traits in response to their interactions with other organisms is a major driver of biological diversity.”

The grant begins in September 2018.


Banner image: Marjorie Weber, assistant professor of plant biology, studies the evolution of mutualistic plant defenses. Here she shows where tar was experimentally applied to block the mite domatia of wild grape leaves to study ecological consequences. Photo by Harley Seeley.

Share this story